I have moved seven times since the Taliban took over. Everything around me is packed in boxes. I am exhausted. There are times when I’ve been up for 48 hours straight. It’s not safe. Several relatives on my father’s side were in the military. Now all are in hiding, living in fear. I haven’t been able to reach my uncles in weeks. Their children — my cousins — who had already lost five family members in the past three years, are terrified and laying low.
But this is not why I am hiding. I am not safe because I have been too vocal and visible. I am an Afghan educator, and I run a nonprofit that seeks to empower women. I feel a responsibility to speak out. I was not silent under the previous government; nor will Afghanistan’s new rulers silence me. In interviews with the BBC, CNN and other international media, I have spoken frequently about the challenges that Afghanistan’s women face. I’m in hiding, not because I’ve submitted; I’m in hiding because it’s the only way my voice remains free.
I am conflicted, however. There is a need for solutions in Afghanistan, and I want to stay. But the current regime has shown it does not want women in leadership positions, let alone women who talk back. Under the new regime, space for people like me has been erased overnight.
I wasn’t supposed to be writing about myself. I was supposed to be writing about how digital schools can help fill gaps when it comes to the lack of resources and teachers. I was supposed to be focused on donating tablets to public schools to help girls from ninth to 12th grade resume study groups in STEM. I was supposed to be building the capacity of 1,000 teachers from suburban areas to help increase student enrollment. I was supposed to be working with doctors and midwives, presenting ideas on how mobile health units could save women in Helmand. I was supposed to be taking classes and contributing on the ground.
But all I can write about now is the trauma of war and the betrayal of our leaders. I think about girls I promised I would support if they focused on STEM subjects because we need more math teachers, IT professionals and health care workers. I talk to my staff in Kandahar, and every day there is a new crisis. One day it’s people unable to afford flour, the next day they are homeless. Families in a military residential area have been ordered to leave, even though most are either too poor to move or are led by women, having lost their male family members to the war.
The Taliban have reopened schools from seventh to 12th grade, but only for male students. My staff tries to cheer me up, saying that if they are opening boys’ schools and asking male teachers to return, maybe girls’ schools and female teachers will be next. But too many of our expectations have been dashed for us to let our future hang on hope. Once again, education has become a political issue. We have to fight merely to justify sending girls to school.
Girls in a patriarchal society like Afghanistan’s are already disadvantaged. Missed educational opportunities set them back far more than they do male students. The society’s gender politics already assigns them an inferior role. Unlike the birth of a male child, which is celebrated with gunfire, a girl’s birth goes uncelebrated. A male child is always the priority, served first, fed first, educated first. He goes to a private school, she to an under-resourced public one. Any expense on her education is considered by many a frivolity.
These attitudes are reflected in the government’s approach to girls’ education. While money was spent on buildings, little was done to train and keep competent teachers with knowledge of key topics. Every day, girls must contend with the worry of getting harassed on their walk to and from school. Many schools don’t have functioning toilets; there is no running water; most students can’t afford sanitary pads. Almost a decade ago, a Ministry of Education and UNICEF survey of schools in Kabul and Parwan found that 29% of girls miss school because of menstruation, and almost 50% were not even aware of menses until it started. The lack of facilities and menstrual hygiene education in a country where the subject remains taboo is discriminatory and discourages many from attending school.
These endemic challenges have now been compounded by the Taliban takeover. What little space they had to better their lives is now shrinking. Their opportunities are vanishing.
Last month, we still had some of our innocence. We thought maybe the world would act. That they would care about Afghans, Afghanistan and our suffering. Not that we haven’t suffered over the past two decades. But the little that we had gained was lost in a short period. The flag that was part of our identity no longer flutters over the Spin Boldak Border, the flag that we celebrated by wearing three-colored dresses as children. We were even robbed of our country’s name. It was no longer the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — a name that still feels wholesome.
The ex-government played its part in the collapse by limiting infrastructure development to cities. Rural development aid was instead spent on underwriting the purchase of villas for the Afghan elites in Dubai. The government claimed that there had been a fivefold increase in school enrollment since the beginning of the Western occupation, but as was revealed by the last education minister, Asadullah Hanif Balkhi, the numbers had been inflated to protect donor funding. As phantom schools, existing only on paper, sprouted up across the country, the funding was being siphoned off to overseas bank accounts. Extravagant parties continued in the affluent Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul even as the war crept nearer.
In November 2017, the police check post in my village was burned down, the men inside turned to ashes. Their widows and children had to flee to Boldak to settle in an internally displaced persons camp. Yet the elite carried on, unfazed in their bubbles of unreality. When I said anything about this, I was labeled a spy. I was seen as an outsider because I grew up in a refugee camp.
I was in Beirut for a workshop when I learned of yet another drone strike in my area in which civilians had been killed. Over the course of the war, the U.S. has launched over 13,000 drone strikes, and according to U.N. data, from 2016 to 2020 alone, airstrikes resulted in 2,122 civilian deaths, including 785 children. The drone strike in my region had targeted a wedding procession, killing 17, mostly women and children. My family implored me not to talk about it, lest it was used against me. But I felt obliged to, so I reached out to friends in the government, asking them to help the families. All I got in return was silence.
We buried many men who had enlisted in the army. I think of my cousin Jan, who died last March in an IED attack. I think of his wife, who sat at his funeral like a statue, distraught and silent. I saw his two young sons running around, unable to comprehend that their father, a 22-year-old, was no more. Today, Jan’s killers roam freely in our village boasting about all the army and police personnel they had eliminated. Meanwhile, Taliban families have their own stories of being brutalized by government forces. The war robbed them, just as it broke Jan’s wife and shattered her children’s future. She will struggle to educate them because the village doesn’t have a high school for boys or girls.
In this war, neither side has put the country first. People, especially women and girls, suffered at the hands of both. Under the former government, women couldn’t access maternal health care in Helmand, which resulted in high postpartum hemorrhage cases. I had to ask the Parliament to help me get a simple memorandum of understanding signed by the Minister of Education so that I could train girls in digital literacy.
I love my country and its people, especially its women. I don’t want young girls to have to fight for what is legitimately theirs. We are expected to fight a war that a superpower couldn’t win. But we can’t surrender either. It would of course be easier for me to flee. But I know that my father, who invested all his savings, time and energy into getting me educated, will never forgive me if I abandon his community and his legacy and take the easy way out. Neither will my daughter, my nieces or those girls whom I promised can dream and be whoever they want to be. What good are our platforms if we choose silence when it matters?
I am now back in Afghanistan’s southern region, working remotely for the past four weeks. It is unlikely that I’ll be able to return to my office or resume working in the way I had previously. But I have to honor my commitments: to those who depend on our support and to those whose support allows us to function.
Over the past 20 years, much money was poured into Afghanistan, but little of it trickled down to the people or created sustainable projects. How is it that after all these years, people are still being forced to sell their kidneys to be able to buy food, or selling their infants to be able to buy medicine?
Afghanistan doesn’t need a lot of money; it just needs the right kind of money. It needs aid with accountability. It also needs its assets unfrozen to meet the scale of the current humanitarian catastrophe. The only people arguing against this are ones who, through their personal wealth or dual citizenship, are protected from its consequences. The country has no money, the elite have fled with their assets, and people and nongovernmental organizations need funds to be able to tackle this crisis. If the West is worried that the money will enrich the Taliban, then maybe they can again assign Qatar — whose mediation foisted the Taliban back on the Afghan people — with the responsibility to monitor and ensure the money reaches Afghans in need.
Afghanistan’s needs are practical. It doesn’t need more feel-good campaigns or hashtag activism, which does little to benefit its people. We seek neither your pity nor your compliments. Those of us who remain — and resist for as long as we can — do so out of a sense of responsibility for this land and our communities. We would much rather live in a normal country that doesn’t require bravery or sacrifice. We don’t want our country to be a playing field for games, great or small, by meddling neighbors or distant hegemons. You can instead respect our rights and sovereignty and see us as empowered people capable of helping ourselves, and the people around us, given a chance.
Afghanistan is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, yet the Taliban are using their newfound power not to alleviate the suffering but to set women back. When people are struggling for their very existence, when children are starving, education may seem like a secondary concern. In Pashto, we say “morh nas Farsi wayi” — “only a full stomach speaks Persian” (considered a privileged language). But the world that stood by as we went through hell has a responsibility; it can take a stand and force the ruling party into accepting women’s right to education and work. Because the humanitarian crisis is also a function of a country where the potential of half of the population is being suppressed. Girls’ education is important because our country needs more health care workers, teachers and scientists. We cannot live on foreign aid forever. Nor can we survive by suppressing our own potential. Afghanistan is already hobbled by years of war and corruption. It has a marathon to run; it can’t do it while also asphyxiating itself.